Temecula council sets course as state preps for legal marijuana

Temecula’s resistance to medical marijuana continued to soften last week, but recreational customers will likely need to look elsewhere when voter-approved legalization takes effect Jan. 1.

Although that stance could change in the coming months, the city council followed its established course during a May 9 hearing that was punctuated by lobbying from marijuana advocates.

The hearing marked the council’s third review of marijuana-related issues in just over a year, sessions that have totaled about seven hours. It also marked a further detour for a council that had been staunchly opposed to medical marijuana for more than a decade.

“We’re knee deep in this, and it’s very complicated,” Councilman Mike Naggar mused at one point during the far-ranging May 9 discussion.

That hearing ended with the council voting to extend its 11-year-old ban on commercial sales of marijuana within city limits. But the issues will get more study by a council committee and at an upcoming workshop, and there were hints that change may be in the offing.

The council softened its stance by agreeing that medical marijuana deliveries can cross into the city. Naggar and other council members speculated that, unless vocal opposition surfaces, Temecula may allow at least one medical marijuana dispensary to open eventually in the city.

Those concessions mark a sea change for Temecula, since marijuana possession shifted from being a criminal matter to a source of public policy debate two decades ago.

California voters took the lead on the emerging medical and social issue when they approved the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative in 1996.

Yet despite the voter support, there was no uniformity across the state in establishing policies for sales, distribution or cultivation. Many cities like Temecula opted to simply ban cultivation, deliveries and sales of the product to residents who obtained a doctor’s recommendation.

California’s vote sparked similar measures in other states. Since California’s approval, about two dozen states and the District of Colombia have allowed the use of medical marijuana.

As support for medical marijuana grew, voters in four states – Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington – legalized recreational use of the drug.

The rapidly-changing state marijuana rules – which conflict with federal laws – have prompted California and other states to adopt policies toward dispensaries, deliveries and cultivation. Those changes, in turn, have spurred action by many cities and counties.

Temecula examined its longstanding policies in January 2016. Those two hearings together lasted nearly five hours and drew comments from about 15 speakers. Most of the audience members were in favor of loosening restrictions. Several of them detailed how marijuana has lessened their pain or eased the serious medical conditions suffered by loved ones.

At that time, the council adopted an ordinance that allows a qualified patient or primary caregiver to grow up to 12 marijuana plants on the grounds of a single-family dwelling. Up to 24 plants may be grown if there are two patients. A least one patient or caregiver must live on the property where the marijuana is grown.

The political landscape shifted again when California voters in November legalized the recreational use marijuana by adults. Proposition 64 passed statewide with 57 percent of votes in favor.

Riverside County voters were less enthusiastic, with nearly 53 percent of voters approving the measure. Support was tepid in Temecula, where 51 percent of voters were in favor of recreational marijuana use.

Passage of the statewide measure has fueled another flurry of analysis and anticipated regulatory action. Temecula formed a two-member committee that is comprised of Naggar and Councilman Matt Rahn.

The full council May 9, discussed what, if anything, the city should do in response to the November legalization vote and the anticipated state implementation actions.

City staff and some council members recommended that Temecula take a “procedural pause” as the state decides how marijuana legalization will be implemented. Prop. 64 allows cities to use zoning and other means to ban or regulate marijuana sales within their boundaries.

Nine audience members spoke during the two-hour council hearing May 9. Most of the speakers told how medical marijuana has helped themselves or a relative with diseases or health difficulties.

Several council members said they remain empathetic toward medical marijuana use. They wondered aloud whether Temecula should allow at least one medical marijuana dispensary to open.

Naggar noted that many Temecula residents who use medical marijuana drive to other cities to make their purchases. He estimated that six dispensaries operate within a mile of his business office in the city of Perris.

But several Temecula council members May 9 noted their opposition to recreational sales, saying such operations may fuel crime or other problems.

“These are the kinds of questions I struggle with,” Rahn said at one point. “I’m a little uncomfortable shooting from the hip and modifying (existing rules).”

After much discussion, the council agreed to leave the existing dispensary ban in place while city staff gathers more information and a public workshop is held. But council members also agreed not to impede deliveries of medical marijuana to buyers inside the city.

Staff and council members said they expect to bring the topic back as state regulations are clarified before Prop. 64 takes effect Jan. 1.

“I mean this very seriously,” Councilman Jeff Comerchero said as he made a motion that was endorsed by the council. “This (issue) is difficult.”

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